Lights Film School recently chatted with Alexis Wajsbrot about the film that him and Director Damien Mace shot last year entitled “Red Balloon”. The film raked in quite a few film festival awards and is now viewable online. Their short film along with our in-depth interview can be found below:
Hello Alexis and thank you for creating “Red Balloon”. In the opening credits I noticed “Hurricane Production”. Is that your production company?
Hurricane Production arrived after the production of the movie, when the movie was done.They loved it and helped us in the distribution of the movie (festival, sells etc).
Damien and I produced the movie, Jimmy Pinto helped us putting the extra bit of budget we needed to hire the RED CAM and we also had the help of Kerri Trounce who was the line producer on set.
For us RED BALLOON is a calling card to get into the world of feature films.
I didn’t see a writing credit. Did you and Damien write the film together? How long did it take you to write?
Yes, Damien and I wrote it together. It’s based on an urban legend, but it took a long time to adapt it to the screen. We actually shot the movie once with a family camera, with Damien and I as the actors to check timing, shots and dialogue. After that we rewrote the next draft. Actually, we were constantly changing little things until the date of the shoot. Red Balloon, is more about atmosphere than dialogue, so it was a really important step for us.
How long did it take from the time you came up with the idea from the time you completed your final edit?
2.5 years! For multiple reasons. The main reason being that we both have very intense day jobs in the film industry working in the VFX industry on big blockbusters movies. It was also our first live action movie and my first collaboration with Damien. So we spent a lot of time in pre-production. We analyzed and watched lots of movies, tested lots of shots and did few tests on directing actors and not just CG creatures . We also wanted to find a production company to help put the budget together, we lost a bit of time doing this before deciding on putting our own money on the table and finding a crew we wanted to work with.
The Shoot was only 3 days, which ran quite smoothly because of this preparation. But it took another year of post production and doing VFX. When we are just 2 people, it is way more complicated than when there is big team involved in the same shot. We also had help of great compositors. The editing was also a long process, and we really wanted to work with Jean Clement Soret for color (Danny Boyle’s colorist, someone we admire and a former colleague of ours from MPC) and as you may imagine, he is a very busy artist, so it was all about finding time slots for us, as he worked on the movie for free.
What was the budget for this film?
A bit less than 6000 GBP ($9,700 USD), mainly spent on the location of the house, the red camera, the lighting as well as things like the generator and van. The whole cast and crew worked for “expenses only”.
You didn’t require a huge cast for this film, but your cast played their roles very well. Did you find it difficult working with a child actor? What lessons did you take away for when you work with children in the future?
It was a true pleasure to work with Rachel Bright (Julie the babysitter in RED BALLOON), and she was great at every step , rehearsal , shoot and ADR!
Yes it was difficult working with the child actor, specifically when you are working in a very tight schedule and budget. We initially wanted Dorothy to be a bit older or at least take someone older that looked younger. But it was very difficult to find an actress to play a no budget thriller genre movie. For the most part, parents tend to prefer fairy tales for their children.
Niamh Palmer Watson (Dorothy in RED BALLOON) was 4 years old during the shoot ! We loved her look and took her almost just on a picture, because the shoot was set up for the week after!
The first difficulty was that we only had access to her for less than a day, so we had to change the whole schedule, in order to shoot every sequence with her at the same time, which means you can’t do all the sequences in the living room first, then the dark living room, then all the sequences in the bedroom. We had to move the lightning and remember exactly the lightning used for each sequence.
Niamh was great in the morning, where she was very focused on everything, but as time passed, she became less and less focused and less and less interested like any child with a new activity. So my advice would be to try and do as much rehearsal as possible before having the child on set.
It was also a challenge for actors that play with her, Rachel is in the majority of the shots speaking alone (there was not the little girl in front of her since Niamh was not there for many of those shot). But when Niamh was there, everyone was focused on her, so Rachel needed to give her top performance each time to ensure we got strong shots.
I guess what we learnt was that it helps to work with slightly older children, try to work with them in rehearsals as much as you can before shooting and keep the number of people on set to a minimum. Also you need to think of your shooting schedule with them in mind. Also, and bit of editing can help polish it all together.
The film is beautifully shot. Nathaniel Hill and his entire camera team Andy Clifford (camera operator), Pete Rowell (Focus Puller) , Simon Wood (steadicam operator), Gille Malard (Crane operator) and of course Jean Clement Soret (Colorist) did an an amazing job with the lighting, movement and composition of your images. Did you strongly storyboard for this shoot?
Yes it was strongly storyboarded, The whole movie had been shot and storyboard more than once ! We also did some concepts for lighting references. Everything was prepared, as we knew we wouldn’t have time for surprises on set.
In fact, we’ll provide the Lights Film School blog readers with the first release of our storyboard. Click here to download the storyboard.
How much of your environments were designed? For example the shot at 4:36 (above) with wallpaper covering the walls? Was that part of the charm of your location or did you need to add extra design elements?
We had a pretty good idea, of what kind of house and furniture we wanted, so we looked for a house that was similar to our original thought. But of course we were open to alternative ideas , as the budget for the film was tight.
For the steadiCam shot 4:36 in the corridor, we just wanted stairs that go to a corridor that lead to the room, the wallpaper was already there and as you say, “that was the charm of the house”. The same goes for the great sofa in the living room. That was also part of the house. However, there was no children’s room in the house, so we entirely built it from scratch (mainly with actual stuff from Niamh’s bedroom). We also moved a lot the furniture and removed many pictures and stuff but “shhhh” we had our deposit back
Speaking of the design process, what role did color play in your film? I noticed the use of lamp shades in a few of your shots (see above) and was wondering how you made decisions about color.
Color played a big role! We didn’t want a cold and American night atmosphere (moon light), so we decided that the light, when it’s all dark, would come from a yellow street lamp. We really wanted to have a warm home atmosphere (strangers was a good reference movie for us). We felt it was more real and even a little scarier. We also played a lot with the color at the grading stage with colorist Jean Clement, and really quickly decided to keep a yellow/orange atmosphere for the beginning. However, as we go into the movie it becomes colder and colder into the dark blues.
How long did it take you to location scout to find the house for the film? What drew you towards this location in the first place?
Well, we looked into normal house rental website to search for a big house where at least 12 people could sleep into, we wanted a garden , a corridor, rooms upstairs and not too expensive. So we quickly selected 5 or 6 houses, and then we took the first one that agreed for us to shoot a movie inside. A lot of people were afraid we would do a porn movie, make too much noise or move/ break all the furniture (…hum… not true, everyone knows a movie crew is very carefull ). So it was resonably fast to find it. It took about 2 weeks.
5:28 (above) you’re really drawing attention to the area around the bed. How are you lighting that shot?
There is a main light in the corridor that bounce into the wall. And then we vignette it mostly in grading with a shape that looks like an open door.
5:38 How are you getting your camera up that high? Where the lights not he house in that shot already there or did you place them there? Did you light any of your exterior shots (i.e. 8:42 – Above)?
We used a crane for the shot at 5:38, and we placed the lights there, with lots of cables! We were supposed to use the crane for the big pull back shot 3:33, but we ended up doing it full CG. But we took the advantage of having it by shooting a few others shots, this shot is one of the 2 shots with the crane.
To answer your next question. Yes there is one big 5K behind her, and actually as the camera is moving, sometimes it was in the shot, so we just croped it (as the footage from the redCam is 4K). There is also a smaller light in front of her. It was total darkness outside otherwise.
You shot on the Red Cam. What made you pick that camera over the other options?
When we shot Red Balloon, the Red Cam was the most talked about camera, Arri didn’t release the Arri alexa. We didn’t want to shoot 35mm because of the cost, and the VFX. So we tested and read a lot about the Red Cam. We loved it straight away. It was giving very similar results in term of Depth of Field as a35mm camera would. It’s also a great camera in low light and a very easy pipeline for VFX, editing and grading. We managed to motivate all the crew with the concept and script, but the use of RED CAM was also a big PLUS, as the majority of our team wanted to try and test it!
9:56 (above) – The camera was handling really well in low light. What lenses were you using for this shoot? What made you choose those lenses over the other options available?
We used the set of Red Cam prime lenses Zeiss superspeeds 18, 25, 35, 50, 85mm T1.3. Nat was in charge of choosing the lenses.
There were two Directors that worked on this project: You and Damien Mace. Why was that decision made and how did that collaboration work? What were the benefits of having 2 directors work on this project and what did the division of responsibilities look like?
Damien brought the coffee and I did the rest…. I am of course joking!
We didn’t make the decision of having 2 directors for this movie. From the beginning we decided to direct together, as we have a complementary profile, and we believe there is a very good emulation between us. We met at Moving Picture Company during the post production of Tim Burton’s movie Sweeney Todd, he was the Lead concept/matte painter artist, and i am a Lead Fx artist (more technical 3d).
There was no compromise between us. I simply had to convince him (or reverse) in order to have an idea approved. We are doing every step of the production together, so we didn’t split any task (apart from the vfx), the advantage of being 2 was more the emulation, and we believe, if we are already pleasing 2 different people, we have a greater chance at pleasing a wider audience!
On set, we naturally split some of the tasks. Damien was maybe more with Nat speaking about lighting, and i was more directing the actresses -> But this does not mean, that i didn’t speak to Nat or Damien didn’t direct the actresses.
I’m sure it was valuable having two Directors share the responsibility of managing a team of 30 people!
Yes it is ! 2 brains is better that one, but honestly, it was really 30 brains on Red Balloon, everyone knew their job and was motivated to do the best movie possible.
So what’s next for your team?
We are currently writing, pitching some feature films, finishing writing an other short on the side, and why not start with few commercials? We will take any good opportunity to direct together!